Larry Levine –
It’s winter. It’s really, really winter. At least a Southern California version of winter. In Los Angeles we read about snow in the newspapers and see it on TV. The main north-south highway over the mountains that separate us from the Central Valley occasionally closes because of snow. But it’s cleared away in hours and traffic flows again.
We Southern Californians can be kind of smug when it comes to weather, particularly winter weather. Winter here means temperatures may drop into the 30s overnight, maybe even the teens in the mountains, and top out in the high 40s or the 50s during the day. The rain last month was double the December average. And now they are forecasting a “once-every-10-years” storm. If it happens, we’ll have the smug kicked out of us for a while. Then we’ll forget about it and head for the beach for dinner.
It’s all relative – this winter business.
Jennifer went on a February whale watching trip out of a nearby Oxnard Harbor a few years ago. She bundled up against the cold – down jacket, ski cap to cover her head and ears, big warm scarf. On the same boat was a couple in short-sleeved shirts, shorts, no jackets. They were from Minnesota. It’s all relative.
Soon after my friend Lisa and her husband arrived in L.A. in November, 1999, they went home to the Midwest for Christmas. When she got off the plane in Minneapolis, she phoned me to say, “The temperature was 70 degrees colder when I got off the plan than it was when I got on the plane in L.A.” It’s all relative.
I get testy if I look out the window and realize I won’t be able to put the top down on my car that day. In Toronto, ice storms close the airport. Relative.
In L.A., a tenth of an inch of rain is enough to send local TV news crews into “storm watch.” If a big expensive TV station can be moved to action by a little rain, doesn’t it make sense for me to do my part? That means I head for the kitchen and haul out my eight-quart soup pot. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in other places. It’s cold and rainy here; we need soup to fortify us and keep us from getting sick, and if we do get sick, we need chicken soup.
Before you jump to any conclusions, I want to make it clear that soup is not just fortification for Jennifer and me. We love a good bowl of soup for its own hardy, flavorful sake. In the last two weeks, I turned out three large pots of soup. Each was good for dinner for several nights; we don’t mind eating the same thing two nights in a row if it’s this good.
This winter’s first was Split Pea Soup, Jennifer’s favorite. Next came a Beef, Barley and Mushroom Soup from a recipe handed down from my Romanian grandmother, to my mother and then to me. Third was my own favorite, a Sweet and Sour Russian Cabbage Soup, an homage to my father’s Russian parents.
SPLIT PEA SOUP
4 cups (2 lb) green split peas
2 smoked ham hocks or shanks (about 1 ½ lb each)
10 cups of water
1 cup of diced onions
2 cups of diced celery, with leaves
1 cup of diced carrots
2 large laurel bay leaves
2 gloves of garlic, chopped
½ tsp of cayenne pepper
½ tsp of dried thyme
Put the peas, ham and water in a large soup pot. Cover it and bring it to a slow boil. Let it boil slowly for about 2 hours. Add the onions, celery, carrots and bay leaves and let it boil slowly for another half hour. With a slotted spoon, remove the ham and the bay leaves. Discard the bay leaves and let the ham cool on a plate. Add the garlic, cayenne and thyme to the soup. Blend the soup using a food mill, blender or emersion blender. Cover the pot and put the soup in the refrigerator overnight so the fat can congeal and be skimmed easily.
Strip the ham from the bones. Shred the pieces of meat and put them in a bowl. You want the pieces of ham to be smaller than bite size but big enough to be a noticeable presence. Discard the fat and bones. Cover the bowl and put it in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To serve: remove the pot of soup from the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature for about one hour. Bring the soup back to a boil over a very low light so as not to burn the bottom. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom to avoid sticking or burning. This could take up to another hour. Add the ham and bring the soup back to a boil.
Two bowls of this makes a wonderful dinner. If you can find some good, dark pumpernickel bread at a bakery, that goes well with pea soup. But don’t fall for the commercial, super market bread. No bread at all is better than poor bread, and this is a very filling soup, so the bread, while a nice addition, is not necessary.
After enjoying the soup the first might, it’s a good idea to apportion the rest into individual servings for future meals so you don’t have to heat the entire pot each time. This soup freezes very well. It also will keep very well in the refrigerator for a few days.
Makes 14 large bowls.
BEEF, BARLEY AND MUSHROOM SOUP
2 lb marrowbones
3 lb beef flanken cut into pieces of 2 or 3 bones each (or beef plate short ribs if flanken is not available)
5 qts water
2 celery stalk, with leaves, diced
2 onion, diced
3 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp powdered ginger
4 packages of dried porcini mushrooms (soaked in hot water to soften)
1 1/2 cups of pearl barley
10 white mushrooms, quartered
2 cup diced carrots
Wash the bones well under cold water to remove any slivers and fragments from the butcher’s meat saw.
Place the bones, meat, water, celery, onions, salt, pepper and ginger in a large soup pot. Cover and bring it to a boil. Reduce heat and cook at a slow boil 2 hours. Remove the bones and meat. Strain the liquid.
(At this point it’s a good idea to cover the broth and refrigerate it overnight so the fat will congeal and can be removed easily before proceeding.)
Soften the dried mushrooms according to the package directions and rinse thoroughly to remove and sand or grit.
Remove the flanken from the bones, pull the meat apart into small pieces and return it to the soup. Bring it to a boil and add the barley and dried mushrooms. Simmer 2 hours longer. Add the carrots and white mushrooms and simmer ½ hour.
Makes 16 bowls of soup. Two bowls are good for a dinner entre on a chilled night.
Here’s a tip: count the number of flanken bones you put into the pot. It’s very likely the meat will cook off some of the bones and it will help to know how many you are trying to fish out of the pot when the time comes.
SWEET & SOUR RUSSIAN CABBAGE SOUP
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes (no salt added)
6 cups water
3 pounds flanken (or beef plate short ribs if flanken is not available)
2 soup bones
1 (6 oz) can tomato paste
1 head of cabbage, about 2 lb., coarsely shredded
1 Tbls coarse salt
¾ cup dry red wine
Juice of 1 lemon
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp paprika
In a large stockpot, combine the tomatoes and water and bring to a boil. Rinse the flanken and soup bones well to remove any bone chips. Cut the flanken into sections of 3 bones each. Add flanken, soup bones, tomato paste, cabbage, salt, wine, lemon juice, cayenne and paprika to the stockpot. Stir to mix thoroughly. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Simmer covered 2 ½ hours. Remove soup bones and flanken. Discard the soup bones. Trim flanken from the bones and return the meat to soup. Let the soup cool. Skim any fat from top. Reheat to serve.
Makes about 16 bowls. Two bowls make a satisfying dinner.
TIP: The flanken most likely will fall off the bones during cooking. It’s a good idea to count the bones as you put them in the pot so you can know when you have fished all of them out after the cooking is complete. Also, fish out the chunks of meat after the soup has cooled a little. Let the meat cool so you can handle it. Then break it into small pieces and return it to the soup.